The Next Chapter

Why Jessica J. Lee sees swimming as a catalyst for emotional change and acceptance of fear

The avid swimmer discusses her memoir Turning: A Year In The Water, swimming 52 lakes in 52 weeks and the emotional growth she went through as a result.
Jessica J. Lee is the author of Turning. (Hamish Hamilton, Paul Capewell)

When Jessica J. Lee was a PhD candidate in Berlin, she decided to commit to a swimming project — she set out to swim 52 lakes in 52 weeks. She chronicled this journey in her debut memoir, Turning: A Year in the Water.

Lee spoke with Shelagh Rogers about the project and why she wrote a book about it.

On Berlin's lake-swimming culture

"It's this thing that everyone does, but no one who visits Berlin as a tourist ever recognizes this. It's this forgotten thing. People come for the night clubs or they come for the history, but they don't realize how rich a landscape it is.There are over 3,000 lakes in the region. It felt like a way that I could really feel like I was living there —  like I was a local — by getting to know the lakes."    

 Why swimming is a catalyst for emotional growth

"I think swimming came quite naturally to me because I'd been doing it as part of my doctoral research. I'd been swimming with winter swimmers and I found that entire process so healing because it forced me not to be in my head. It forced me to be in my body and be in the place I was — exactly in the middle of the landscape when I'm swimming in the water. That was incredibly helpful. It was a central point of so many emotional things in my life. I was terrified of swimming for a very long time, especially in lakes. The idea of working through difficulty by swimming — I really believed it would make me powerful in some way. I thought I would defeat fear in some sense. But it was more about learning to accept it and recognize that I could continue what I was doing regardless."    

On the significance of the title

"I took the title originally from a conversation I had with someone in Germany about how the lakes change and how there's a German word for it  — umkippen — which literally means to turn over. But I realized we didn't have a clear English word for this. I'd been thinking a lot about it and thinking a lot about the emotional change I was hoping to catalyze by swimming and turning sort of settled on me."       

Jessica J. Lee's comments have been edited and condensed.